Uber Eats driver was on phone when she hit, killed UT student, lawsuit says

A citation against the driver for failure to yield was dismissed because a Tampa detective failed to submit it to court on time. Police are appealing the decision.
During a prayer service, a photo of Emily Walker, right, was shared online by the New Jersey high school where she graduated. Walker, a student at the University of Tampa, was killed in a motorcycle crash at the downtown Tampa campus.
During a prayer service, a photo of Emily Walker, right, was shared online by the New Jersey high school where she graduated. Walker, a student at the University of Tampa, was killed in a motorcycle crash at the downtown Tampa campus. [ St. Rose High School ]
Published Nov. 24, 2021

TAMPA — A distracted Uber Eats driver slammed into a motorcycle at the University of Tampa campus in March, killing a 19-year-old student who was riding on the back and injuring her brother, the driver, according to a lawsuit.

The family of Emily Grace Walker is seeking monetary damages in the wrongful death lawsuit, filed Oct. 29 in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

Named as defendants are Uber Technologies Inc., its management subsidiary, Portier LLC, both of San Francisco, and the driver, Michaela Marie Lents, 33, of Tampa.

Lents was on her phone and making a delivery, the lawsuit said, when she hit the motorcycle at 6:45 p.m. on March 7 at the south entrance to the university’s downtown campus, Cass Street at UT University Drive. Walker died at the scene. Her brother, Christopher Walker, 27, received permanent injuries, the lawsuit said.

Tampa police cited Lents for failure to yield while making a left turn, which carries a $163 fine. The citation was dismissed, however, because a detective with the Tampa Police Department failed to deliver a copy to the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office within the required five-day window.

Lents filed the motion to dismiss the citation July 20, as soon as it was filed — seven days after it was issued, court records say. The Police Department is appealing the dismissal, according to court records.

It took more than four months to issue the citation — a time lapse common in crashes where there is serious injuries or death, said Tampa police spokesperson Jamel Lanee. No criminal charges have been filed against Lents.

Tampa police didn’t send out notice the day of the collision — in emails to news organizations or on social media — as they usually do when fatal crashes occur. Lanee said the department does not send alerts for every incident that happens within the city.

Lents was “rushed and not fully attentive to the road” when she turned her green 2017 Honda HR-V in front of the motorcycle, according to the lawsuit. The legal action was filed by attorneys for Catherine Walker as representative of husband Stephen Walker and son Christopher Walker.

Uber is negligent in failing to train drivers and in encouraging distracted driving, the lawsuit said. The Uber phone app prompts delivery people to communicate with customers while driving, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also faults Uber for hiring Lents even though she had received two earlier traffic citations, for careless driving stemming from a 2014 crash and for speeding 20 mph over the limit in 2009.

A spokesperson for Uber said in an email that the company would not comment on pending litigation. Instead, the company issued a statement: “Uber is committed to road safety and we continue to develop features in the app and raise awareness about practices that can lead to safer streets for all — regardless of the mode of travel.”

Messages seeking comment were left in two calls and a text message to a phone number listed for Lents. They were not returned. Catherine and Stephen Walker did not respond to calls or to messages left on social media this week.

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Walker, a sophomore, was studying film and screenwriting at the University of Tampa. She was a native of Sea Girt, N.J., and a 2019 graduate of St. Rose High School. The high school held a prayer service in her honor two days after her death.

Hundreds of people shared their memories of Walker online, including family, friends and John Reffue, her speech professor at UT.

“Emily was incredibly courageous, bright and a leader in our classroom and her loss has left a huge void,” Reffue wrote. “We miss her so much.”

A GoFundMe appeal raised $20,415 for Walker’s family. The organizer wrote, “Emily was an incredibly passionate artist” and she was very close to her five siblings, who’d often call her “little bird” or “boo.”

Another Florida family also has filed a wrongful death lawsuit in a fatal crash in March involving a driver for Uber Eats, according to WBFS-TV, Ch. 4 in Miami. The driver ran a red light and caused a crash that killed University of Florida student Sophia Lambert, 18, as she stood with friends on a sidewalk, the lawsuit said.